Mariah Carey's last album, the multiplatinum Emancipation of Mimi, brought her back from a career slump of bad movies, dud albums, marital collapse and emotional meltdowns. It proved she still had the goods. So what is there left to prove with her new record, E=MC2? Answer: Nothing.
Which may be why Jermaine Dupri, the man behind so many of the Emancipation hits, plays a more muted role this time out, providing the occasional "uh-huh," "yeah" and "nope," among other things, on four of the album's 14 tracks. Has he worn out his welcome like the on-again, off-again lover Mariah sings about in the bulk of his tracks?
JD was a delight on Emancipation, acting less like a producer and more like a friend, bolstering Mariah's confidence and giving her someone to riff with ("It's Like That," "Get Your Number" and "Shake It Off"), ultimately helping her get to the point where she could do the breakout track "We Belong Together." But JD and Mariah don't belong together anymore. Now that Mariah's finally free, her producers need to help her spread her wings — otherwise, all we get is redux.
JD comes closest to showing that he still can do something new on "Thanx for Nothin'," which, like the Scott Storch track "Side Effects," finally reveals a side of Mariah we don't see that often — her true self. The Mariah we usually see and hear is a glossy one. Psychologists might say her affect is "off" — meaning her gestures and facial expressions don't match her mood. There's a reason for that, as she explains on "Side Effects," which is the emotional abuse she says she suffered during her marriage to music mogul Tommy Mottola. Mariah, who is usually quite guarded, has alluded to the subject in songs like "Petals," but never has she gone into such detail as she does on "Side Effects," in which she refers to the marriage as a "private hell that we built." Even though it's been 11 years since they split up, she sings in a lower register that she's still "wakin' up scared some nights ... dreaming about the violent times." Her emotional scars left her "a little protective ... a little defensive ... a little depressed," which makes her "fake a smile" as she "deal[s] with the side effects."
Even though "Side Effects" features Young Jeezy, it sounds like a rock power ballad, as if Mariah had been listening to a lot of Bonnie Tyler and Pat Benatar and decided that to capture her emotions, the music needed to share her pain. This turns out to be a good thing, because when she's not focused on vocal gymnastics, Mariah can really sing — as in, letting us really feel what she feels. Nowhere else on the album does Mariah get quite so emotionally naked, and it makes you wonder: What would Mariah have sounded like if she ventured out of her comfort zones of pop and R&B? (Not withstanding her ill-advised Def Leppard cover, of course.)
While "Side Effects" is about her ex-husband, her second single, "Bye Bye," appears to be about her late father, Alfred Roy, who died of cancer in 2002. Mariah reminisces about the too-little time she shared with her mostly absent father and regrets how as a child, she didn't understand why he failed to show up sometimes to see her after he and her mother divorced when she was 3. But mostly Mariah regrets that he "never got a chance to see how good I've done/ And you never got to see me back at #1." This confessional moment doesn't last long, since she extends this song about death to be for anybody "who just lost somebody."
But for most of E=MC2, Mariah doesn't want to feel any pain — she wants to party the night away. So on the club-thumping "Migrate," she hops from "my car into the club ... from the bar to VIP ... from the party to the afterparty ... afterparty to hotel" with T-Pain, who urges her to "bounce, bounce, bounce." Like most MC albums, every guest star seems required to check her name at the door, and this is no exception. "Migrate," which was co-produced by Nate "Danjahandz" Hills, has Mariah in full diva mode as she leaves a club once they start "playing my jam."
Just in case there was a question of which jam that might be, she name-checks them herself in "For the Record," a play on words in which she incorporates past song titles into a verse after she asks her lover, "Give me one reason one we can't just press rewind?"
"I'm That Chick" ups the ego ante, but as she demonstrates with some silly lyrics ("la da da ooowee") and a funky disco beat (benefiting from an "Off the Wall" melody sample), she's not taking any of it seriously. At least we hope she's not serious when she compares herself to Tupac and Biggie, then ice cream and the lottery, as she softly taunts, "You're fiending to blaze up and taste me." As if this weren't already destined for the '80s time-warp roller-disco crowd, she serves up the joyful romp "I'll Be Lovin' You Long Time," which borrows from the chorus of DeBarge's "Stay With Me" (as well as a phrase uttered by a Vietnamese hooker in "Full Metal Jacket" and then sampled by 2 Live Crew and other hip-hop acts). At least on the reggae-inflected "Cruise Control" (featuring Damian Marley), she exhibits a sense of humor, singing in a Jamaican patois during the second verse: "When tha door open, de gals on de block they be hopin' to rob tha clock." She's not joking, or as she puts it, "Tink I'm joking?"
But for all the jokes, silliness and absurdities, Mariah is at her best when she keeps it simple, as she does in the closing track, "I Wish You Well," a piano ballad with gospel overtones (even including Bible verses from the books Proverbs, John, Philippians and Psalms). The song is a turning-of-the-cheek to anyone who mistreated her or doubted her. Older and wiser, she realizes on E=MC2, which hits stores April 15, that she needed them all along to make her who she is now, and thanks them for it. Because if she can be square with them, she's truly set free — squared.